The final installment of Mercy Lounge and BMI's Road to Bonnaroo 8 off 8th series was different from its predecessors in that, while the first two rounds had winners that started out as near shoo-ins from the get go, the third round had no clear favorite as the night commenced--leading to an initial feeling that this could be anyone's game. However, by night's end, it was obvious that gimmicks and one-upmanship would reign supreme in the quest for Bonnaroo glory.
Despite our best efforts not to live up to our reputation, The Spin arrived late, regrettably missing Kindergarten Circus. We were told by those who were there to bear witness that the band kicked ass with a raunchy youthful vigor that could eventually--though not in 2009--send them on their way to Manchester.
At events such as this, attention spans are short, such that anything that doesn't pop at a loud volume goes straight in the crowd's collective ear and immediately out the other. Just as Lylas' ethereal set at the first RTB and K.S. Rhoads' set at the second, Jacob Jones' set met with a chorus of indifferent conversation. Jones put forth a solid effort, but in terms of making an impression great enough to render him a Bonnaroo contender, this was too tough a crowd.
The band that would set the tenor for the night were The Tits, who--par for the course--had augmented their lineup to include a pair of nubile back-up dancers clad in bikinis. While it wasn't the most novel approach in terms of getting an audience's attention, it was certainly effective. One look at the stage and eyes were on the mock girl on girl action while all ears--easily more than 300 of them by this point--were on the balls-out riffage and stadium-sized bombast that is the band's stock in trade. A closing cover of Motorhead's "Ace of Spades" would be the coup de grace for anyone who still didn't get it.
The next band of the evening, Shoot the Mountain, decided against gimmicky shenanigans in their pursuit of victory, instead opting to rely on the strength of their material, which they played with enough purpose and raw energy to grant them dark horse status. Hotpipes--the beloved elder statesmen of the bill--also decided to do without the bells and whistles, turning in another excellent performance that inspired the audience to call for an encore.
Next up were Elle Macho, whose "local supergroup" angle--while effective in garnering them some buzz over the last six months--was no match for either the sincerity of the bands that preceded them or the artifice of the bands that would soon follow. Also, the lyric "Elle Macho is here to mess with your mind" should be grounds for automatic disqualification.
After stepping out for an obligatory nicotine fix we came back inside just in time to see Heypenny--clad in marching band regalia--part the sea of hipsters as they made their entrance to the stage. A previous performer's description of the band as "those fuckers" made it abundantly clear that this was a move that, in and of itself, might single-handedly fast-track the band to the finish line. But there was plenty of effort to be rewarded. They presented a massive ensemble of players. They had flashing video screens and enough stuff-to-hit-with-sticks to make Slipknot proud. They presented an all-around smorgasbord of flair. But you know what? As Peter Gibbons once said, "The Nazis had pieces of flair that they made the Jews wear." That's not to say that Heypenny are a bad band or that they're undeserving of victory. They're not. But they won the battle based on their antics and not on the strength of their music, which was wholly overshadowed by how it was presented. Which just proves that when it comes to winning over a Nashville audience, dressing up your revue with spectacular costumes and shiny objects can easily distract from perennial issues such as the lack of a discernable melody.
While Heypenny are a real band that shrewdly played to the crowd's need for accessories, Space Capone--who closed out the night--are a novelty band from the get-go. Sort like Jamiroquai, Maroon 5 or Justin Timberlake--albeit on a local level--they play relentlessly white hedonistic neo-soul. It was an easy sell for the thoroughly intoxicated audience. The band played their kitschy yacht-rock while bathed in blue lighting and so much smoke that you would have thought there had just been a controlled demolition. When the smoke cleared, it was apparent to all that one of these final two acts would prevail on the road to Bonnaroo. On the club's back porch a debate over style vs. substance immediately got underway among crowd members and judges as they cast their votes, sending Heypenny on their way to Middle Tennessee's--nay, the nation's--largest music festival.